BATON ROUGE (AP) — The most memorable play in Louisiana-Lafayette's thrilling New Orleans Bowl victory in December came on the game's final snap. But kicker Brett Baer's 50-yard game-winner wasn't the only big play against San Diego State provided by special teams.
During a presentation Thursday at the Louisiana High School Coaches Association's Coaches Clinic, ULL coach Mark Hudspeth reminded his audience that his team also left a pair of punts inside the opponent's 1-yard line, converted a fake punt and returned a punt 87 yards for a touchdown.
"We never would have won that bowl game if we were not really good on special teams," Hudspeth said.
Nor would the Ragin' Cajuns have won nine games, finished third in the Sun Belt Conference and advanced to ULL's first bowl game in 41 years.
An emphasis on special teams helped ULL convert a remarkable turnaround in Hudspeth's first season as coach, resulting in even high expectations as the Cajuns enter 2012 with 15 returning starters (including two specialists) and their sights set on a conference championship.
So it was that Hudspeth focused his appearance before the coaches Thursday on the game of football's other third.
"If you put your heart and soul into making special teams important," Hudspeth said, "you will see unbelievable results."
How do the Cajuns know to respect special teams? They need only look at the man who leads their program.
Hudspeth made a statement to the Cajuns last year when he introduced himself as their special teams coordinator.
"It must be important," Hudspeth said, "if the head coach is coaching special teams."
Players who cover kickoffs, throw blocks on punt returns and serve other special-teams roles often go overlooked, but Hudspeth said he makes a point to reward such players for the part they play.
For one thing, special-teams players at ULL get the first spot in line during pregame meals. For another, they often get to take a knee when the Cajuns do conditioning work at the end of practice.
If a player makes an outstanding play on special teams, he may receive a special T-shirt from the coaching staff.
As a young coach, Hudspeth said he would spend sleepless nights drawing up plays on offense he hoped would net his team 4 or 5 yards. He found that fake punts and long kickoff returns could get even better results.
"A great kickoff return or punt return that can get you 35 or 40 yards is going to be more important to you than sitting around all day trying to draw up another 4-yard yard play," he said.
Anyone who follows the Cajuns knows as much.
ULL's damage on special teams last year included a last-second field goal to beat
Florida Atlantic, three fake punts that resulted in first downs, a perfect 3-for-3 mark on onside kicks, two blocked field goals and a successful fake field goal.
Then came the New Orleans Bowl clinic, an assortment of special-teams magic capped by Baer's memorable game-winner.
"That was the difference in our season," Hudspeth said.